“Don’t even think about it” is Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger’s message to theme park development team regarding virtual reality, according to a report from the LA Times. Instead, Iger sees augmented reality headsets to be the more likely fit for future attractions.
The world’s most-visited theme park company, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Worldwide, dominates the charts, entertaining over 130 million people each year, more than double the attendance of the next largest company, Merlin Entertainments Group.
Disney has a long history of its ‘imagineers’ developing uses for innovative technology in their parks. The company was a pioneer in out-of-home VR deployments in the ’80s and ’90s era of VR. When Disney makes a call on the future of technology in its parks, it carries significant weight in the industry. While popular parks like Six Flags have successfully re-purposed roller coasters to work with VR headsets, the result hasn’t always been well received, particularly among theme park purists.
Iger is clearly wary of this, and believes augmented reality, rather than virtual reality, is the key technology to be found at future Disney attractions. By blending the real and virtual world cohesively, AR is considered to have broader applications in the future, a sentiment shared by several major tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft’s long-term bets with their Tango and HoloLens projects, and Apple repeatedly voicing their preference for AR.
According to the LA Times report, Iger said he’s been spending his Tuesday afternoons at a Disney engineering lab wearing an immersive head mounted device that lets him duel a stormtrooper while wielding a lightsaber, though he remained vague on the details of the hardware and the experience.
That said, AR technology has arguably greater technical hurdles to overcome before it can rival VR in the immersion stakes, such as small field of view, occlusion challenges and critical optical mismatches. Today, VR delivers higher-impact, convincing experiences at a lower cost, and Disney certainly isn’t turning its back on the technology, continuing to invest in VR research, only recently publishing a paper relating to dynamic object interactions and proprioception. Plus, VR in an outdated form still exists in Orlando, as DisneyQuest remains open, despite its announced closure in 2015.
Once planned as a worldwide chain of 20 VR centres, some of DisneyQuest’s pioneering technology is almost 20 years old, and long overdue a rethink. The LA Times article states that the Disney CEO has weekly duels with a stormtrooper in a Disney engineering lab sporting a head-worn device that enables him to hold a lightsaber. Star Wars is one of Disney’s biggest franchises, with two theme parks at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Park due to open in 2019. Perhaps too soon for AR technology to be ready to play a big role at these new attractions, but the future sounds exciting.